The Power that Drives “Modal Operators” Meta-States

Bobby G. Bodenhamer, D.Min.

During my early NLP training, I realized the awesome power of the language pattern that we call Modal Operators and how they affect our perception and behavior. Indeed, in the development of our beliefs, these Modal Operators formulate the very maps we use to navigate the territory. They do that by determining the “boundaries” of our belief systems. They do that by creating the linguistic structures which prescribe our mode of operation (i.e., our modus operandi).

In the Meta-Model, we classify such words under the category of Modal Operators. These refer to our modus operandi or style of moving through the world. In so conceptualizing the world, we also imply our ideas about the nature of the world that we live in.

In classic NLP, we have the Modal Operators of Necessity which consist of those terms of necessity such as, “have to, must, should, ought, got to” etc. When we talk this way, we map out a world of force, pressure, law, obligation, etc. We then develop Modal Operators that involve a feeling of necessity. “I have to go to work.” “I must clean this house.” “I ought to write her a note.”

Secondly we have the Modal Operators of Possibility or desire which utilize an entirely different set of terms. “I get to do this task.” “I want to clean the commode.” “I desire toModal Operator in how we move through the world. write the letter.” When we talk this way, and language ourselves with these terms, we construct a reality that sorts for opportunities, possibilities, desires, etc. And so we have an entirely different

Possibility words include “can, will, may, would, could,” etc. These reflect an optimistic model where we view various options and alternatives as possible. “Well another day, another dollar.” “When I get to work today, I will work on…” Desire words include “want to, love to, get to,” etc. These arise from a model of the world as including wants, desires, and passions. “I feel so lucky to get to go to work!” Choice words include “choose to, want to, I opt for,” etc. These indicate a mental map that allows for human will, intention, and choice. “I choose to go to work.”

On the other side of the Modal Operator of Possibility coin we have the Model Operators of impossibility, which show up primarily in one term, can’t. It sets a frame of the lack of possibility, the lack of options. “I can’t do this job.” “I can’t stand criticism.” “You can’t say those kinds of things to people, they’ll think you’re nuts!”

In the Meta-Model, the question that challenges modal operators invites a person to step outside his or her model of the world and explore the territory beyond the modus operandi. “What would happen if you did?” “What would it feel like (look like, sound like) if you did?” “What stops you?”

In the January 2001 issue of Anchor Point, I found Steve Andreas’ article on Modal Operators (MO) quite interesting and informative. In describing Modal Operators and how they work, Steve wrote,

“Since a verb always describes an activity or process, a MO is a verb that modifies ‘how’ an activity is done. A MO functions in the same way that an adverb does, and perhaps should be called an adverb. An adverb sometimes precedes the verb that is modified, and sometimes follows it, while a MO always precedes it, and this is part of the power of a MO. A MO sets a general orientation or global direction ‘before’ we know what the activity is.” (Italics mine)

Steve then provided example of just how the use of Modal Operators affect our perception and the subsequent kinesthetics associated by repeating the same thought of “looking out the window” but with different Modal Operators (in italics):

“I want to look out the window.”

“I have to look out the window.”

“I can look out the window.”

“I choose to look out the window.” (Italics mine)

As we reads and experience each of these statements, we can immediately sense the impact brought about by utilizing different Modal Operators.

And yet, just how do Modal Operators create such impactful internal states?

How is it that they in fact do define the boundaries of our belief systems?

Steve describes the how of Modal Operation in terms of these words functioning in a way similar to adverbs in that they modify the verb, but unlike the adverb, they always precede the verb and set within the listener/reader a direction for the brain to go prior to processing the action of the verb. Indeed, Modal Operators modify verbs.

In Neuro-Semantics, we take this further. We see Modal Operators as functioning as do all frame of references when we apply one frame to another frame of reference. Our brains do not stop at just one thought.  Brains keep on thinking thoughts about thoughts and so create levels of thoughts, levels of frames. As a whole, they make up the ever-fluid meta-levels of our mind.

The Meta-Stating Process

When we have a “thought about a thought,” the second thought changes the first thought. This is where the magic lies. In our thinking and behaving, this ability of our brain to experience thoughts about thoughts repeatedly plays a crucial role. What’s the secret? When you have one thought (thoughts are composed of images and conceptual meanings) and then entertain another thought “about” the original thought, the original thought changes.

What does this mean in human experience? How does this play out? It is actually very simple, which is part of why many miss it. If you have an experience that scares you, and then from that experience, you become afraid of your fear, what will happen? In this case, the fear will intensify. Applying fear to fear typically leads to a person becoming paranoia. The fear generalizes as an overall attitude of mind. It then functions like a Meta-Program, that is, like a higher perceptual program for how to sort and pay attention to things.

Suppose that instead of becoming fearful of fear, the person welcomes the fear? Imagine that. The person applies the thought, “This fear has value to me and I will welcome it”? What will now happen to the fear? This higher thought will modulate the fear so that the person will be able to step outside from it, and learn from it. Once that happens, the person can then learn whatever he or she needs to learn from the fear and then bring other resources to the fear. The person may apply faith thoughts to the fear. What would that bring into existence? What happens to fear when faith is applied to it? Fear typically disappears in the face of strong faith.

Play with your brain. Get a thought of anger. Now, apply to your anger the thought of forgiveness. Take the same anger and apply the thought of love. What about taking your anger and applying the thought of calmness to it. What happens? Would you have ever guessed how easy you could change your states of mind by applying one thought to another thought?

Every time we take a thought and apply another thought to it, the original thought will modulate or change in some way. We call this Meta-Stating. This refers to how we can apply one thought to another thought, one emotion to another emotion, one attitude to another attitude, one metaphor to another metaphor, etc. And, herein lies the magic. Herein lies our ability to re-format and re-program our thinking. Those whom I have seen who have changed their thinking, inevitably meta-state their problem state with higher-level resource states. Instead of meta-stating themselves sick, they learned to meta-state themselves well. They left re-building a new set of higher-level mental frames that serves them.

Bateson described these processes.  In his work on levels, he noted how higher levels organize, drive, and modulate lower levels.

Meta-Stating Our Styles of Operating

This description of utilizing Meta-States showed up, not surprisingly, in Steve Andreas’ article about Modal Operators. He utilized this concept in his excellent description of how Modal Operators function.  Steve explained,

“Since a verb always describes an activity or process, a MO is a verb that modifies ‘how’ an activity is done.”

In translating this sentence into in terms of Neuro-Semantics, I would only change one word,

“Since a verb always describes an activity or process, a MO is a verb that modulates ‘how’ an activity is done.”

Both to “modify” and to “modulate” mean “to change”, which makes them synonymous. Modal Operators change, or to explicate further, Modal Operators “set the frame” for the meaning of the verb and they do this through a meta-stating process.

Instead of the traditional classifications of Modal Operators of Necessity and Modal Operators of Possibility/Impossibility, Steve provides four classifications under the two categories of motivation and options:

1. Motivation

a. Necessity: “should,” “must,” “have to,” etc.

b. Desire: “wish,” “want,” “need,” etc.

2. Options

a. Possibility: “can,” “able to,” “capable,” etc.

b. Choice: “choose,” “select,” “decide,” etc.

This makes for a neat classification. In order for us to make a change, we must first be motivated to change, here desire and/or necessity orientations motivate us to initiate the change while the possibility of choice followed by the choice to change actually brings about change. Thus we create a chain for change:

“I know I must change. Indeed I feel I have to change. I really desire to change. And, yes, I do believe it is possible for me to change and that I can change; therefore, I choose to change now.”

Talk about self-hypnosis! Chaining Modal Operators in this way works for a really neat self-hypnotic trance. It provides some neat linguistics in creating commands to the nervous system to chain our behavior towards change. And, it does this because the Modal Operators “set the frame” for modifying the verb that follows the Modal Operator:

1. “I must change.” – A frame of necessity

2. “I have to change.” – A frame of necessity

3. “I desire to change.” – A frame of desire

4. “It is possible to change.” – A frame of possibility

5. “I can change.” – A frame of possibility

6. “I choose to change.” – A frame of choice

In each of the above examples the Modal Operators affect or modulate the action of the verb, and hence perception. It does so because we have put the Modal Operator in a meta-position to our primary state of changing. This means the Modal Operator term meta-states the verb and so determines the frame for the verb. In NLP we say that “all meaning is context dependent,” and Modal Operators set the context, the frame, in determining the meaning of the verb.

My partner, Michael Hall, says that in the meta-stating of another state, the higher state textures the lower state. We see this in these Modal Operator patterns. When I must go to work, the “must” textures the quality of my “going to work.” What a different texture of mind-and-emotion when we get to go to work! Or, I can go to work. The higher state (or meta-state) shows up as the advert that defines the quality of the primary level activity.

This leads, of course, to the very conversational trance work that we do with Meta-States. Since every adverb and adjective, as modifiers, sets the frame for the qualities that we want to “bring to bear” upon an experience, they allow us to meta-state experiences very easily.

“And as you comfortably relax in the growing confidence that you can and will understand these things about our modus operandi in the world, you can really wonder and do so excitedly about the possibilities for change and transformation, knowing that in NLP we focus on positive changes that enable people to be at the best, and you can feel that in a delightful way, can you not?”


The linguistic distinction of Modal Operators (in the Meta-Model) show up as the way we see, perceive, and pay attention to things as we move through life (as Meta-Programs) and they do so because we have brought one state to bear upon another (Meta-States). How about that? Three meta-domains governing one experience.

So when we hear something like, “I must get busy and produce that report.” the linguistic marker of the Modal Operator tell us about the operating Meta-Program and the meta-state of necessity driving the person. “Yes, I know that you really must put out that report and don’t you really want to see it completed, because you know you can do it?”


Andreas, Steve. (2001). Modal Operators. Anchor Point Magazine (January, 2001), pp. 19-26. Salt Lake City UT: Anchor Point Publications.

Bodenhamer and Hall. (1999). The User’s Manual for the Brain. Bancyfelin, Carmarthen, Wales: Crown House Publishers Limited.

Burton, John and Bodenhamer, Bob. (2000). Hypnotic Language: Its Structure and Use. Wales: Crown House Publishers Limited.

Hall, L. Michael and Bodenhamer, Bob. (1997). Figuring Out People: Design Engineering with Meta-programs. Wales, United Kingdom: Crown House Publishing.

Hall, L. Michael and Bodenhamer, Bob. (1997). Mind Lines: Lines for Changing Minds. Grand Junction, CO: ET Publications.

Hall, L. Michael. (1995). Meta-states: A Domain of Logical Levels, Self-reflexive Consciousness in Human States of Consciousness. Grand Junction, CO.: ET Publications.

Hall, L. Michael. (1998). The Secrets of Magic: Communication Excellence For The 21st Century. Wales, United Kingdom: Crown House Publishing.